Sunday, July 10, 2005

Letter from Africa

by Petra Carter

I have been here now for two months – ‘here’ being Malindi, on the east coast of Kenya in East Africa. And, having completed most of the donkey work (such as establishing some basic communication lines, renting a little house and buying a 22-year-old four-wheel-drive) I can finally settle down into what I hope will be the calm and inspirational part of my sabbatical.

Weather, needless to say, is glorious - despite the sometimes-stifling heat and sticky humidity, I am living an almost guilt-inducing self-indulgent existence. Getting in touch with my ‘authentic self’ whilst basking in the balmy sea breeze of this tiny and ancient trading port ain’t half bad! No access to TV, radio or newspapers, means I feel completely free and deliciously shut away. I guess if there is something I need to know, I will know soon enough. Meanwhile, and despite living in a 80 percent Muslim community, I am blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the world of angry men (Bush, Sadam, Blair, Bin Laden - who cares whom they are and what power games they play?) and devote myself to the serenity of matters more important – like simple living and feeding my soul…

I am reluctant to socialise, despite almost daily invitations from (mostly retired) locals, whose boredom spurs them to entertain – if only to see a new face now and then.
I try to paint and swim every day, but most of all I love talking with the Africans. Everyone seems now highly educated, compared with the time I lived here 25 years ago. Kenya has the highest literacy rate in Africa and parents’ first priority is to save enough to buy every one of their kids a school uniform – the only requirement to attend school as the country has a free school policy. I’m excited for them. All this knowledge has made Africans more confident. And most show an insatiable appetite for general knowledge, ranging from politics and religion to languages and art. On the whole (at least here at the coast where food is plentiful) most people seem to make enough money to live comfortably. There is a general feeling of ease and most Africans seem content, displaying, when things do go wrong, an acceptance and patience that is equalled only by the wise men from the East.

I have spent the last two months care-taking a house belonging to a friend’s mother, who has been holidaying in Europe. It is an impressive house which stands on 2 acres of stunning gardens, which horticulturalist Joan, aged 84, still takes care of herself, albeit with the help of two gardeners. There is an unbelievable array of plant species, each one smelling and looking different from the next – from luscious green shiny leaves, oozing with the juices of life, to dark, dry, mysterious specimens, and from frivolous, frilly attention-seeking characters to soft, voluptuously furry numbers. There are huge ancient and weird-looking bulbous plants as well as long, thin, obscenely phallic, things in all shapes, sizes and colours, and let’s not forget all those pointy, prickly, spiky objects – all set amidst splashes of the most deliciously clashing colours of bright pinks, purples, oranges, yellows and reds. Some flowers are subtle, others shockingly vulgar, then again there are plenty of plain and ordinary specimens to set-off others that are prettier and more delicate than the daintiest dandelion seed head. It’s humbling to see that there is such a variety of species in the world.

The gardens also harbour shaded areas for vegetables and herbs, potting sheds and a number of secret paths under and around enormous baobab trees. Walking a different path each day, I have also stumbled across a bright and open clearing and a sort-of fairy ring with mysterious looking stones. In amongst all this abundance, there is also a large swimming pool, and the house itself is on two floors with large verandas on both levels. From up here I have a birdseye view of all this beauty and am at eye level with the many bird species that flutter between the trees. But amongst the undergrowth lives another world of creatures, scuffling about doing their daily business: hedgehogs and lizards and newts and frogs and dormice with soft fluffy tails and colourful beetles and many species of ants and praying mantises. It can be a cruel world however, where the winner always wins and the looser always loses. And yet it seems like paradise was once like this.

Literally two minutes (walk - not drive!) from this paradise is a deserted and sparkling white sandy beach, scattered with palmtrees and edged, in places, by tall neem trees (the ‘magic trees which are said to cure or ward-off 60 diseases). At high tide, there are deep rockpools in the sea, making it a comfortable place for swimming and snorkling. Needless to say, the sound of the pounding surf of the Indian Ocean is ever-present.

Just this week, I have moved into my very special rented treehouse, also a mere two minutes away from a pristine beach – a place where the traditional fishermen repair their nets and sails and where they rest beside their hollowed-out tree-trunk ngalao boats which they use for fishing. They sometimes take me out to the reef where they fish for lobster and crab. And occasionally, in the distance, I spot a romantic ancient Arab dhow – one of those elegant, century old, hand-carved wooden ships, with their hand-sewn, patched-up Egyptian cotton sails.

The treehouse itself is rather primitive but it does have electricity (in between daily powercuts) so I can occasionally listen to favourite music. The house also has a bathroom, a tiny kitchen with a large fridge (which equally functions as cupboard to protect food from all sorts of beasties) and a basic stove. Every room contains treasured possessions from a by-gone era, at least 3 generations – not valuable in money-terms, but beautiful special things, in a sacred sort of way. Though often chipped or cracked, I never tire of revelling at the beautiful crockery and dishes, of gently touching the old books and art on the walls, of caressing the furniture and fabrics – old and worn as they are, and faded by the harsh African sun. It’s a complete mishmash of all sorts – and a secret glimpse into another world.

Like most of the houses here, my treehouse is built entirely from locally grown materials, with walls framed by mangrove, mango or sisal poles that are filled in with hand-cut coral ‘bricks’ and then white-washed. Roofs are made with makuti (palmleaves) and inside, some of these ceilings are lined with painted hessian to protect against snakes which could sometimes accidentally fall out of the makuti. At the top of the house, in amongst the tree branches, there is one more beautiful room, with a simple wooden floor, sensually matured with years of weekly wax polishing, and evocative Arabic hand-carved furniture with cushions in colourful local fabrics. This room also has a palmleaf roof but this time it is open at the sides, making it a delightfully cool and breezy place to sleep on a hot night.

The garden is a maze of little jungle-like paths interspersed with pretty seating areas, birdbaths and follies made out of locally found materials, and plenty of places for quiet contemplation or a cooling drink in the dapple-shade of the tall neemtrees. Incidentally, my treehouse is the only house (of some 20 I have viewed in the last few weeks) that is not surrounded by grills, fences or gates. I have little of value so why would I imprison myself? There are two patios on either side of the house, depending on where the sun (or rather shade!) is at the time of the day, with rustic furniture made from driftwood and scattered with more cushions covered in brightly patterned locally dyed fabrics. Here I can have breakfast, lunch and dinner out in the open, or sit by candle light and under the stars.

The house ‘comes with’ a loyal old servant called Baya who wears sophisticated horn-rimmed glasses that make him look like an old, learned professor. He is a quiet, sensitive man who takes care of me like I am his own daughter, and often goes around chuckling at my insanity of painting still lives of fruit and vegetables! His passion is polishing copper and brass and when I paint under the neemtrees, he likes to sit beside me in total silence for hours – occasionally glancing over my work and nodding in quiet approval. I like his silent companionship very much. Our yoga and meditation gurus tell us to concentrate on the present, to live in the now and to take pride in every little chore. We work hard to achieve this state of peace but to the African it comes naturally. Everything Baya does is done with his full attention and infinite care – not only without complaint, but with total dedication and pride. I can learn much from him. The idea of ‘employing a servant’ may repulse some of us here, but it’s worth pointing out that most Africans consider that giving employment is possibly white-man’s only useful purpose in Africa today.

Whilst there is no luxury in my little house (if you don't call having your laundry washed and ironed luxurious..!) it is a very magical place. There is no glass in my windows – only chicken wire to stop the monkeys or monitor lizards entering. There are no smart, tiled surfaces or gleaming taps. My toast is made on an old wire rack over an open flame, my clothes cupboard consists of a wooden pole behind a cotton curtain, my shower water is heated by the sun and my lighting comes mostly from paraffin. But there is nothing lacking. Semi-transparent mosquito nets romantically waft in the breeze, blooming gardenias perfume the air, twittering birds provide the background music and there is total and utter peace. Things cannot get any more idyllic. And yes, the milk goes off if you leave it out for 10 minutes, and the roads are full of potholes (sometimes the size of one’s car), you can never count on electricity, the network is mostly down and the shops often run out of things. But you CAN get live prawns the size of a baby’s arm everyday an hour after they were caught, a bucket of crabs or clams costs a few pennies, and the most famous halwa in the world, made with fragrant cardamom and pistachios, is made right here in Malindi and exported all over the world. And there are sunsets to make you cry with the beauty of it all. Life is good here. If it weren’t for that giant monkey that keeps me awake at night by ripping at my delicately knotted makuti roof. But sweet old Baya has promised to catapult it away tonight. No doubt the darling man will stay up all night, squatting on the patio of his little house, ready to pounce. Whatever it takes to please or protect me. No use me saying otherwise. He considers it his job. And his pleasure.

My senses too are acutely alive here - almost exaggerated. Smells for instance: I can smell approaching rain half an hour before it arrives. And I can smell when the tide is in or out without looking at the sea. Everything has a smell – familiar ones, like corn being roasted over charcoal at the roadside stalls, or the smell of dust or freshly sawn wood at a carpenter’s shed. The sweet smells of wild frangipani flowers or fragrant ripe mangos or melons, acrid smells of melting rubber or a roaming goat, the pungency of dried spices and worn leather… And then there are the sounds, of a million different birds - whooping, cawing, singing, fluttering, the buzzing of an insect, the cackle of hens that run around freely everywhere, the excited chatter of Muslim women dressed in their black bui buis, children laughing and playing in the cool of the evening with toys made of old empty food cans and sticks or running up a palm tree for the precious milk in a green coconut. I love the wonderfully spiritually soothing, monotonous Muslim chanting blasted from garishly decorated mosques six times a day. The wise old men in squeaky clean kikois and prayer-hats, leaning on walkingsticks, on their way to evening prayer. And I adore their gentle Swahili greetings - the way they lightly touch their foreheads and hearts. Shikamoo Mzee. Salaam maleikum. Maleikum salaam.

Everything is special and precious. Right now, as I’m sitting here typing on the veranda, there is a flowering orange-red ‘flaming’ Thika tree beside me that is alive with dozens of chattering sunbirds in all the stunning colours of the rainbow. Last night, coming back from my evening swim, I met a hedgehog trundling through the garden and when I had my supper on the veranda, I heard, amongst the racket of nocturnal frogs and crickets, two little bushbabies calling each other in the trees.

Feeding my soul alright. By the bucket-load… To overflowing…

Malindi, 2003


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